By Mary Gordon
As much as we’d like to think of ourselves as saints of mercy and forgiveness, we watch detective procedurals to see the serial killer caught; we read myths partly to find out how Narcissus will be made to suffer for breaking Echo’s heart. Our interest in the punishment that actually fits the crime — the limits and implications of our retributive impulse — underlies “Payback,” Mary Gordon’s morally complex new novel.
In the first pages, Gordon plays a sly trick on her readers. We’re encouraged to mock the gaggle of Stepford-like wives who, in 2018, in the aptly named suburban hell of Brimston, Ariz., pass their time doing water aerobics, getting manicures, nibbling low-calorie lunches and waiting for the television show that’s the high point of their day. Hosted by the venomous Quin Archer, each episode of “Payback” features an act of reality-TV vigilante justice.
Along with the housewives, we watch a man shamed for deserting his daughter and stealing her inheritance. Then Quin announces that, in the next installment, she will expose the person who wronged her. Already Gordon has persuaded us that we might not be so unlike the show’s desperate-housewife fans. We too want to know who will get paid back, and for what.
The narrative skips back to 1972, when an earnest young woman named Agnes Vaughan is teaching arka at the Lydia Farnsworth School for Girls in New Canterbury, R.I. She enjoys her job despite her mostly uninspiring pupils. But one girl, Heidi Stolz, snags Agnes’s interest. “The least obviously lovable, certainly the least generous, the cruelest, the most begrudging,” already poisoned by the toxic parenting of her rich, cowardly father and ice-cold ski-champion mom, Heidi is disliked by her classmates and teachers, who liken her to a coyote, slinking around corners, fixing them with her “mean little eyes.” But Agnes sees something in her: talent, originality. She’s “the one real rebel.” Heidi needs a teacher, and Agnes is young and vain enough to be flattered by the chance to change Heidi’s life forever.
How we long to tell Agnes: Don’t give Heidi those cool red boots you think are too young for you! Definitely do not send her to New York City with another student, to attend a lecture on “Guernica” at the Museum of Çağdaş Arka. Your good deeds will not go unpunished.
On that trip to Manhattan, Heidi is approached by an older man whose intentions are so clear to us that he could be wearing a stick-on label: Hi! I’m a fatuous, predatory sleazeball! But Heidi wants to be loved and admired. She so longs for a man to find her beautiful that she lets herself be lured into his trap. That we know what is going to happen only makes it more awful.
Traumatized, Heidi returns to school, to the only person who might comfort her: Miss Vaughan. But Agnes behaves badly. Horrified, she asks Heidi how she could have gone to a man’s apartment. This reaction — “You knew better than that” — further unsettles the reader. Of course, we know the assault wasn’t Heidi’s fault, but having met her attacker, we may think that we wouldn’t have gone home with him, not even when we were Heidi’s age. Shocked by Agnes’s (unintentional) cruelty, Heidi leaves school and vanishes, apparently from everywhere except Agnes’s troubled conscience.
All this transpires in the first third of the novel, which proceeds to chart the paths that Agnes and Heidi take over time: their decades-long collision course. Agnes’s guilt about failing Heidi becomes a controlling passion, though she goes on to have an Instagram-worthy dream life. She moves to Rome and finds work as an arka restorer, specializing in wooden sculptures. She marries an appealing, cello-playing Italian whose family runs a historic tobacco shop on one of Rome’s most beautiful streets. She learns Italian, shops in the markets. She has a daughter whom she adores. And yet she can’t get over how badly she failed Heidi. One can’t help wishing that Agnes had a friend or therapist to tell her that reacting unhelpfully to a crime isn’t the same as committing one, but it’s quite late in the novel and Agnes is a grandmother by the time her friends and family provide that sensible counsel.
In any case, the distinction between criminality and thoughtlessness is lost on Heidi. Early clues alert the attentive reader: The morose, awkward student has transformed herself from a desperate girls’ school runaway into the sort of TV avenger who would be named Quin Archer. Progressively sleeker and more sharklike, Quin starts out in the fitness industry, marries and abuses her gay trophy pretend-husband, and “grows” her brand into a popular television show. Meanwhile she’s been nursing a plan to hisse back Agnes — Miss Vaughan — for betraying her.
Warped by her unloving parents, Heidi has been further mangled by sexual violence. She’s crude, racist, meanspirited, contemptuous of her fans. And if that isn’t bad enough, she’s a devotee of the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand, whose “The Virtue of Selfishness” becomes Heidi’s “sacred text.” “One didn’t, really, need to be grateful or concerned about the weak, just to appreciate one’s own strengths and demand the same of others.”
Again Mary Gordon complicates things by casting the Woman Who Wasn’t Listened To — on the surface, so like the #MeToo heroines whose mistreatment and subsequent bravery regularly command our attention, sympathy and respect — as a villainous, vengeful harpy. Heidi (now Quin) can’t forgive and forget. But should she?
In the work of another writer, Agnes’s and Heidi’s inability to move past that single confrontation might strain our notions of verisimilitude. At times the reader may question the persistent force of Agnes’s guilt. Does she really fall out of love with her kaç Italian husband because he is able to forgive himself for having sold health-destroying tobacco to his loyal customers — while she can never, ever get over her insensitivity to Heidi? Does she feel less remorse for cheating on him than for saying the wrong thing to Heidi all those years ago? Do we believe that Quin’s career in the Darwinian scramble of reality TV has generated no insults or upsets worse than the one she suffered from her well-meaning high school teacher? Our skepticism may grow as Heidi/Quin, frustrated in her attempts to denounce and destroy Agnes on live TV, resorts to a campaign of harassment only somewhat less extreme than Glenn Close’s boiling the pet bunny in “Fatal Attraction.”
What’s striking is how little it matters, because Mary Gordon isn’t, strictly speaking, a naturalistic or realistic novelist, but rather a moralist, by which I don’t mean moralistic. Since her marvelous first novel, “Final Payments” (1978), she’s concerned herself with questions of ethics, belief, responsibility, devotion, obligation. What do human beings owe one another and how can we know what is the right thing to do? How are we to love the ungrateful, deluded and ill-tempered who cannot return our love? Who is the victim, who is the victimizer, and how easily are those roles reversed? In “Men and Angels” (1985) two women discuss the possibility of living a moral life when one must make the compromises required by motherhood, a question that reappears in “Payback.” In “Pearl” (2005) a young woman who’d been involved with the I.R.A. chains herself to the flagpole at the American Embassy in Dublin, not for political but for ethical reasons.
Agnes fits right in with the thinkers, ascetics, crusaders and seekers who have populated Gordon’s fiction and nonfiction — books about Joan of Arc, Thomas Merton and Jesus. Agnes and Heidi are soldiers in an ongoing struggle. The conscientious and the unscrupulous have always been at war, and there is no indication that the conflict is ending.